Doing good
Could an Airbag Revolutionize U.S. Healthcare?
Michael Bordieri | January 8, 2015

Though there are many reasons why U.S. healthcare spending totaled $2.8 trillion in 2012, one of the massively increasing expenditures is the high cost of hip fractures. A startup, however, hopes to help fix this problem with its innovative wearable technology.

The Pennsylvania-based ActiveProtective is the brainchild of Dr. Robert Buckman, a trauma surgeon, professor of trauma surgery, and former combat surgeon. Under Buckman’s direction, the company has designed and developed a kind of wearable airbag that deploys to protect a user from a hard impact. The device can be worn—comfortably, Chief Executive Officer Drew Lakatos stresses—either under or over a person’s clothing.

Active Protective's first-generation prototype device.

Active Protective’s first-generation prototype device.

Buckman actually came up with the idea for ActiveProtective when he took over as head of trauma at two Philadelphia hospitals, explains Lakatos.

“What he noticed was the large spike of elderly people falling down and the subsequent pain, agony, and life-altering consequences,” he says. “He started to ask what he could do for these people, and that’s when he started down the path of trying to figure out whether there was a way of identifying people who were at the highest risk of falling and suffering these kinds of injuries.”

“Dr. Buckman thinks this is a solvable medical issue, and he knows that this is a $70 billion issue to our medical system, so he wants to solve that problem.”

With that approach, Buckman launched what would become a nearly decade-long effort to untangle a scientific enigma: How can you detect when someone is falling? Before he could design a wearable device to lessen a fall’s impact, he had to find a solution to that vexing question, which is a lot more complicated than it may seem.

“The real science of what we’re doing is determining a fall in progress,” Lakatos says. “In order to determine a fall prior to impact you really can’t look for a fall, as there is simply not enough time. What we’re looking for is the absence of stereotypical human motion. Doing so requires a level of sophistication and research that takes a fair bit of time.”

A rendering of one of the company's deployed wearable airbags.

A rendering of one of the company’s deployed wearable airbags.

Tasked with figuring this out was a group of scientists, algorithm developers, and an aerospace engineer working together to model the spine of an elderly person so that it resembled a mechanical system. Though it might sound counterintuitive, a person’s spine is similar to that of a fuselage, offering little mobility as it ages.

This scientific modeling enabled the researchers to determine when people fall in and out of stabile motion, offering them insight into the complicated physics underlying falls. Yet ActiveProtective’s wearable technology wouldn’t be possible, Lakatos says, if it hadn’t been for another recent breakthrough.

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“The other piece of technology that’s allowing this is that the automotive industry has begun adopting inflators for seatbelts,” he says. “Prior to the last decade, a chemical reaction—essentially a small explosion—inflated a car’s airbag. With today’s seatbelt-mounted airbags, the auto industry has come up with cold gas inflators, which is something that a person can actually wear. The convergence of cold gas inflators, cheap 3-D motion sensors, and then the advent of wearable devices are all intercepting to create a device that is able to actively protect people in a way that was never before possible.”

With one out of every three people aged 65 and older suffering serious falls each year, ActiveProtective has a big market for its wearable device. It also has the potential to sizably reduce hip-related healthcare expenditures: Hip fractures among the elderly cost the U.S. healthcare system in 2012 $30 billion, which doesn’t include the long-term-care expenditures associated with the high percentage of patients that can no longer live independently.

Buckman, however, remains squarely focused on the wearable device’s impact on healthcare spending and human suffering, Lakatos stresses. “Dr. Buckman truly sees this as solving a medical problem,” he says. “He knows there’s a business side of this, but he attacks things like your stereotypical physician. He doesn’t think this needs to happen. He doesn’t think people need to fall down and break their hips. He thinks this is a solvable medical issue, and he knows that this is a $70 billion issue to our medical system, so he wants to solve that problem.”

ActiveProtective CEO Drew Lakatos talked about his company’s innovative technology at the 2014 TEDMED conference.

ActiveProtective spent years determining the effectiveness of its algorithm and wearable prototype. Much of the functional testing, Lakatos says, will take place in a Maryland production facility that’s home to Operative Experience—another of Buckman’s businesses.

“Operative Experience develops lifelike, human cadaver simulators for teaching combat casualty and emergency trauma surgery. The simulators bleed, breathe, and suture—and that’s what we’re using to rapidly test our device,” he says. “In that lab at Operative Experience, we’ve built a replica of a 90-year-old woman that is very high fidelity and completely posable to realistic fall situations—it’s amazing. We can pose these models to perform our impact attenuation testing.”

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Based on the testing ActiveProtective has conducted both at Operative Experience and at a VA hospital in Rhode Island, it is confident in its prototype’s efficacy. “I can’t make any claims,” Lakatos concedes. “But if you’re wearing our device, we’re attenuating impact force greater than any other device on the market, which should eliminate the vast majority of hip fractures.”

Active Protective's wearable airbag is designed to deploy in the event of a fall.

ActiveProtective’s wearable airbag is designed to deploy in the event of a fall.

Their path to market has been greatly accelerated by partnering with Aging 2.0, an organization that provides privileged access to aging healthcare providers and distributors, in order to facilitate trials and eventual adoption. With hip fractures projected to cost the healthcare system $70 billion a year by the end of the decade, ActiveProtective’s patented technology could help save billions of dollars and cut injury-related deaths significantly.